In and around my old policy stomping ground, there are some big moves about the future of government and public administration. What impact could this have on somewhere like Cambridge?
The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) was spun out of the old Department for Media, Culture and Sport, having been given a huge sum as an endowment from the National Lottery to invest in innovations not just in science and tech, but also in public administration – thus able to take risks that central government could not. That’s what I remember it as anyway. It was where a lot of the fun stuff was happening about a decade ago.
Earlier this year (2019) they launched a new project on the radical visions of the future of government – and are due to publish their findings in September. They threw out the challenge to anyone who was interested and one of the shortlisted teams was the OneTeamGov collective.
So me and the dragon volunteered given that governance structures in Cambridge have been something we’ve been wrestling with for years.
Most recently I’ve called for the abolition of Cambridgeshire County Council, and have identified the mess that is the county’s governance structures as a big risk to the future success of the county and regional economy.
“Is it that bad?”
Yes – Cambridgeshire’s governance is *that bad*
“So…what has OneTeamGov come up with so far?”
Jenny Vass of Cabinet Office writes:
“Public servants of 2030 are held to account with radical transparency. Truly building trust and working collaboratively involves working in the open; they publishing thinking, data and decisions as a default.”
How does this look at a local government level? At a city, town, village, neighbourhood level?
I remember about a decade ago being shown the concept of a ‘city dashboard’ that city managers have giving them live up to date news and data feeds of essential services and functions. I was quickly convinced by the concept but knew it would not work in the existing set up in England because of the fragmentation of public services – whether through privatisation or repeated mini-restructures of government.
“What does a city dashboard look like?”
This one for London is a basic level one. There’s also this one for Dublin. Think of the things that disrupt cities on a day-to-day basis. That gives you an indicator of the sorts of information streams a city manager is likely to need to know about.
- Road traffic congestion
- Functioning of public transport/mass transit systems
- Air quality
- Weather – current and looming
- Power supplies (electricity, fossil fuels etc)
- Any health trends (eg flu)
- Organised events – big civic festivals?
- Resilience/capacity/staffing levels of emergency services
The above list is not exhaustive. It also begs the question: “what does it mean to be responsible and accountable for the above?” In particular when considering contractual vs democratic accountability?
Now, when you think about somewhere like Cambridge…well…what do you think?
“Ex-public schoolboys reading Rupert Brooke poetry while punting on the river passed King’s College Chapel on a sunny day – oh, and highly advanced science and technology that is far too complicated for me to understand but it makes lots of money for The Treasury!”
Which also explains the current mess of the system of governance for Cambridge: The people of the city stubbornly refuse to vote for Conservative councillors and, bar a few notable exceptions have not done so since the 1990s – prior to which the city was a safe Conservative council and Parliamentary seat. Have a glance at the last 15 years of electoral history on these charts by the late Colin Rosenstiel. The only way the Conservative Party can maintain a close political control of Cambridge City is by using its county majority over its political opponents. Hence Cambridgeshire and Peterborough being the only combined authority aside from the very recently created ‘North of Tyne’ that has a large rural hinterland. The remit for ‘metro mayors’ and their flawed combined authorities was that they were mainly for joining up urban areas. In the case of Cambridgeshire, the remit was very much party-political. (Also, historical note, Rupert Brooke campaigned against the Conservatives in the 1910 general elections – he was a radical liberal!)
“Why does all of the above matter for 2030?”
Because it forces policy makers to reappraise the structure of local government and public services across the piece – not just for Cambridge or Cambridgeshire. This will have big implications for the private and not-for-profit sectors, in particular those that deliver state contracts.
Furthermore the system of metro mayors and combined authorities is more than likely to be found wanting. In my opinion.
Now let’s apply something else that Jenny Vass wrote:
“OneTeamGov sees a radical future for public services where politicians are accountable for a life stage: birth, early years, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood, middle age, elderly and death. Services are delivered as a ‘one stop’, joined up across life stages, taking the model of the ‘Tell Us Once’ service.”
“Senior public servants are responsible for maintaining the foundations of human life beyond the political cycle: education, health, security, sustainability, etc. They gain cross-party steer for long-term strategic issues than span political terms and use public collaboration to ensure transparency of major shifts in direction.”
“Tell us once automatically fails in a system of two-tier local councils”
Exactly – I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve heard politicians try to explain “Well it’s not Cambridge City Council that is responsible for highways, that is Cambridgeshire County Council”. Most members of the public couldn’t care less – they just want the pot hole repaired. “I will log a call with our outsourced service provider [insert name of multinational corporation] who will log the request as outstanding!”
Furthermore, we also have many of our public services contracted out and/or privatised. Such as our buses. Stagecoach in Cambridge under the previous director was run as a very tight commercial operation. This caused tension with councillors and communities. A new director has since been appointed – and he met the Cambridge Area Bus Users’ Group at the latter’s AGM. [I declare an interest as a founding member]. You can see how he got on at that meeting in the video playlist here.
“Should privatisation be banned?”
This video by the municipal authorities in Vienna makes an interesting case for public services.
In German with English subtitles.
This is inevitably a difficult conversation for civil servants to have with elected politicians who are ideological on such issues – whether 100% state only or 100% everything must be privatised except for law and order, and defence functions.
Reporting lines to local councils or back to Whitehall?
- State hospitals fall under the remit of the National Health Service – reporting to the Secretary of State give or take what Lansley tried to do in 2012.
- Secondary schools now report directly to the Department for Education through the academies structure – with similar aims for primary schools
- The police (give or take the Police & Crime Commissioners – who most people probably don’t even know exist) report to the Home Office
- The magistrates courts report to the Ministry of Justice
Are those existing lines of reporting and accountability sustainable in the future? Furthermore, what changes will need to be made to local government regarding how it raises revenue? Remember council tax was a stop-gap for the failed Poll Tax of 1990. The idea of setting local taxation bills based on property prices of 1992 is a nonsense, but successive ministers have kept this in the ‘too difficult to deal with’ pile.
***It did not used to be like this***
Taking the history of Cambridge the town as an example, a whole host of public services grew up as and when Parliament empowered local authorities throughout the 1800s. Don’t think that the founding of the NHS was not without controversy – it was very controversial as people were worried about the impact it would have on local council-supported hospitals.
Above – one headline from 1946 and plans for a new national health service. From the Cambridgeshire Collection.
In Cambridge, historically our chief magistrate was the Mayor of Cambridge. The police, schools and libraries were all run out of the then town council. Not only that, the decision-makers at the top were known public and civic figures locally.
Capt. Greef – our first chief fire officer
It was only in later years following successive restructures did these functions move either to the county council or to central government. But these people had public profiles. That doesn’t mean they were always popular – but at least people had heard of them.
Cambridge’s other complication – The University of Cambridge
Of which technically I’m a member due to my enrolment at the Institute for Continuing Education. Other towns and cities may also have large institutions that can make or break a place – such as a labour-intensive employer who underpins local supply chains. The relationship between town and gown is set out in statute because of centuries-long squabbles between the two sides, of which Prof Helen Cam of Girton (later the first woman appointed a professor at Harvard) wrote extensively about here.
At some stage, the future governance of Cambridge is going to have to involve re-examining this relationship – not least because of the Byzantine structures of governance and accountability in the University itself. How do you persuade such large institutions to behave in a manner as if the rest of the town – and surrounding villages matter? This is very important given how much land the member colleges own. Planning and building control will be one of the acid tests for the future of government – not least because of how we collectively respond to the challenge of climate change.